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Why this company is testing a 4-day workweek

At Uncharted, workers will get full pay and benefits while working 32-hour weeks. If it’s successful, it will become permanent.

Why this company is testing a 4-day workweek
[Source Image: VikiVector/iStock]

Until this week, the team at Uncharted, a Denver-based social impact accelerator, worked a standard 40-hour schedule. But the organization decided to launch an experiment for the summer: If everyone stops working on Fridays, will they still be able to get the same amount of work done? Workers will get full pay and benefits while working 32-hour weeks, with the expectation they’ll produce the same amount of work they did during a 40-hour week. If it’s a success, the change will become permanent.

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The planning began last fall, after Microsoft shared the results of a four-day workweek test in its office in Japan—and saw productivity grow 40% even with three-day weekends. Banks Benitez, the cofounder and CEO of Uncharted, saw those results and started researching similar changes at other companies, like New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian, which first tested a four-day week in 2018, eliminating unnecessary meetings and helping employees focus so they could still meet goals but have far better work-life balance. When it worked, Perpetual Guardian permanently switched to shorter weeks.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of years, more in an abstract sense of how can we give people more trust and autonomy to get their jobs done whenever they need to,” Benitez says. “That abstract idea became more concrete as I was reading some of the research.”

Uncharted started planning how the change could work. Employees analyzed how they were spending their own time and considered how they could focus more on essential tasks. Benitez says that he has gone through the same process, realizing that the 50-hour weeks he has typically worked until recently—often filled with meetings that he could have skipped—weren’t necessary. “I tend to be a hard worker . . . because I work longer and work harder, my ability to prioritize and be decisive is not as strong,” he says. “So if I begin to create these constraints around my work schedule, I can really develop that muscle much stronger.”

The team is rethinking how meetings are run, and now blocks out protected time for everyone to focus on work without interruptions. An external consultant is tracking the whole experiment, with surveys that capture what work was like before—everything from how likely employees were to work on the weekends to whether they felt burned out or how well they were able to focus and meet deadlines and how satisfied they felt with their life outside of work. The survey will be repeated in the middle of the summer and at the end.

Each employee also set goals for the summer, and departments also set goals. These goals “were evaluated for their ambition to make sure they weren’t 20% less ambitious than what we normally would do during the same three-month period,” Benitez says. The organization will track performance based on those goals. They also plan to meet with the foundations and companies that support the accelerator. “We’ve said, we have partnerships with you, we’re on the hook to deliver these results,” he says. “We still intend to deliver them and we want your feedback along the way about that, and you should feel full permission to express concerns if you have them.”

As a social impact accelerator that helps entrepreneurs launch businesses, Uncharted works on long-term projects with flexible deadlines; Benitez recognizes that every organization can’t easily make the same changes. “We’re super privileged to be able to talk about this and do this,” he says. “And there are so many employees that work way more than 40 hours, or work two full-time jobs. . . . They work 80 hours or 60 hours or something else because they can’t live. And that’s a whole separate problem. So this working less is inherently privileged in the sense of we’re not reducing pay.”

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But for many companies, the change could work. The pandemic has already demonstrated that it’s possible to move away from traditional ways of working as the number of people working from home has spiked. “The conversation about the future of work should move away from just, can we work remotely?” Benitez says. “The answer, I think, is yes. And now it’s sort of like, how do we make work as human as we can? I think that opens up a lot of possibilities. And the four-day workweek is one opportunity to explore that.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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